Gamifying Learning

From time immemorial great ways of learning have been – experience, sharing stories of these experiences, introspection, playing, tinkering, observing, experimenting and trial and error. This is why human species has also been described as Homo fabers – those who love to create and Homo ludens – those who love to play.

Imparting learning as disciplined, formal education is a fairly modern invention, only a few centuries old. While it may be efficient, it is often boring, or stressful, or irrelevant, or all of the above. This is because formal education has degenerated into passive consumption of knowledge and its later regurgitation in tests of recall. Whereas, research shows that deep learning happens when a learner is self-motivated to learn and constructs own understanding of knowledge.

This is what happens when we are playing a game. We are intrinsically motivated and overcome difficult challenges of our own volition. Games are high on effectiveness and engagement and they cultivate self-awareness, self-control, attention, effort, persistence, rule following, boundary negotiation, bonding, trust, empathy, respect, fairness and making right choices. But talk about using games in education and you have parents complaining how games are addictive and colossal time-wasters and educationists lamenting that games foster adverse social behaviour, at times resulting in outright violence.

Is there a way we can make the most from games to enhance a learning experience, while minimizing their downside? Gamification may hold the answer.

Gamification is use of game-elements in non-gaming contexts. Nike creating an online community where customers share their exercise data with friends and use friendly competitiveness to improve fitness; or, citizen science projects like involving amateurs to help identify new planets and galaxies by analyzing massive amount of data; or, Volkswagen changing driver behaviour by rewarding drivers who drive within the speed limit through a lottery created by pooling fines imposed on drivers who violate the speed limit – are all examples of gamification.

Gamification of learning is not simply adding points, badges and leader boards as a layer on top of a learning activity. It involves deconstructing good games to find elements that can be used to enhance learning. According to designer Sebastian Deterding, a good game connects with the personal goals and passions of the players and a great game lets the players customize the goals. Exactly what advocates of personalization of education are looking for?

Game designer Raph Koster observes in his book, ‘A Theory of Fun’, “With games, learning is the drug”. If this is indeed the case then why do students find learning taxing in a school environment? Deterding postulates that this is because in a school environment the conditions are not optimal because unlike a game the challenges provided are not novel or interesting (interesting challenges are contextual and learners identify with them because they are based on learners’ aspirations, or life situation), there is no varying of pace in learning, scaffolding that allows gradual learning may not be present and learners at school do not get ‘excessive positive feedback’ which is informational in nature and not controlling or judgmental.

Game designer Amy Jo Kim explains that in a game a ‘newbie’ needs to be ‘onboarded’, a ‘regular’ needs fresh challenges so that new learned behaviours become a habit and an ‘enthusiast’ plays the game for achieving ‘mastery’. One size does not fit all – an important lesson for formal education. Kim further propounds that good games embody the same five elements that are imperative for wellbeing and happiness, as suggested by father of positive psychology Martin Seligman – the PERMA elements: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. Elements that would surely go a long way in enriching a learning experience.

In his book ‘Social Intelligence’ author Daniel Goleman explains the impact of emotions on learning and performance. He explains that our cognitive performance is highest at the right level of stress, and inspired moments of learning combine – full attention, enthusiastic interest and positive emotional intensity. Hans Selye too observed that an optimal amount of stress is important for improved performance. He described it as ‘eustress’ or euphoric stress, which is the opposite of distress. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a similar mental state, which he calls ‘flow’, where one strikes optimal balance between skill possessed and challenge faced.

Game designers understand this optimal skill-challenge balance very well. That is why they build ‘levels’ in a game. If experience or knowledge is low and challenge is high it leads to anxiety, so games provide scaffolding like hints; if knowledge is high and challenge is low it leads to boredom, and to beat boredom games allow the players to quickly get to the next level of challenge. Great lessons here for differentiating learning to suit individual learner needs. Such personalization of learning is becoming more and more doable, as described in detail in Clayton Christensen’s book, ‘Disrupting Class’.

In his book, ‘The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game’, game designer turned teacher, Lee Sheldon illustrates many examples of how he has used ARG (Alternate Reality Games) in his classroom. He also incorporates other game mechanics. For example, one of the first things he did was to tell the students that in his class they all start at Grade-F (or Score = 0, as in a game) and that they have to work their way to higher grades. They earn Experience Points for what they do in the class, including one point for simply showing up and work their way to better score/grades, akin to moving to higher levels in a game. ‘World Without Oil’ is an example of an ARG to solve real-world problem by chronicling alternate future scenarios.

In summary, by deconstructing good games we can identify elements that can be used to augment learning. A good game constitutes a challenge that players have an intrinsic motivation to undertake and master, it has innovative and constantly changing stimulus that ensures intense engagement, it allows autonomous choices while incorporating a rule system that ensures fair play and clear winning conditions, it has instant, juicy and informative, non-judgmental feedback that improves performance, it provides a safe but not sterile place where consequences are not dire, frustration is taken in stride, failure is less shameful and in collaboration there is mutual respect, trust, benevolence and empathy.
Surely these are ingredients that can be borrowed for enhancing any learning experience – be it formal education or an app.
For Learners
The key take-away from gamification for learners is the understanding that something becomes fun and intrinsically motivating when it is relevant to own context. So learn to restructure learning activities such that they are better aligned with your own aspirations. For example, you may think that there is no point studying quadratic equations or Calculus because you will never apply them in your daily life. Change this mindset and instead think of them as a learning experience that helps you figure out how to learn difficult and complex concepts, which is a very useful life skill.
For Teachers
Think how you can dovetail gaming elements to make your teaching more situated, contextualized and personalized for your learners? What lessons gamification has for adding an emotional impact to a learning experience? How gamification is especially suited to impart 21st century skills like innovative problem solving and empathetic collaboration? How games have a mechanics where assessment is embedded and what lessons this has for finding alternates to weekly tests, which cause unnecessary anxiety and fear of failure and ridicule. Can you embed assessment into learning itself? Project-based work is one example.
Watch a short animated introduction on Gamifying Education:
For Parents
Why do games hold the rapt attention of players? Don’t you wish your children could have similar concentration while studying! In her book ‘The Power of Mindful Learning’, Ellen Langer explains that the natural state of the mind is to seek variety. Thus, for us to pay attention to something for any amount of time, the image must be varied. For example, we usually have no difficulty in paying attention to play because in play novelty is inherent – every minute of a tennis match is different. The trick to improving attention lies in our ability to vary the target of our attention. We need to figure out ways of looking for novelty in a stimulus that otherwise seems static, say a teacher talking in the class or when we are reading a long research paper. By creating novelty in a stimulus we make it more interesting and hence do not get distracted. Teach your kids how they can make learning an adventure or a game, for example, by reading a story from the perspective of different characters in the story, or making up different endings to the story. Such mental interaction makes the stimulus (learning content) novel and hence more interesting and diminishes distractions.

Short videos on this website explore how fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better –
For Knowledge Workers
Analysing the design of great games provides an insight into self-motivation – how games can make players toil and persevere. In his book ‘Drive – Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, author Daniel Pink explains that motivation 1.0 was based on our biological drive of survival and growth, motivation 2.0 is based on ‘carrot and stick’ approach, but we are now moving towards motivation 3.0, that Pink describes as AMP – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Autonomy:  the urge to direct our own lives, Mastery: the desire to get better and better on something that matters, and Purpose: a yearning to do something larger than our self-interest. Knowledge workers can learn from games that beyond material rewards, a key motivator we have is our innate desire to excel, and use this understanding to become excellent lifelong learners, who yearn to learn.
Dan Pink’s TED talk – The Puzzle of Motivation
Good Book:
The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game’ – Lee Sheldon

Good Video:
‘Paideia as Paidia – From Game-based Learning to a Life Well-Played’ – Sebastian Deterding
Good Website:
John Seely Brown: Chief of Confusion
Free Course:
‘Gamification’ – by Professor Kevin Werbach, Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania
Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” – Mark Twain (in Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

Prof Henry Jenkins, former MIT Education Arcade program faculty member, quips that he has seen students playing Sid Mier’s famous game ‘Civilization’ and to win they enthusiastically cheat by reading their history textbooks!

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